The media and the public think search engine relevancy started with Google. It didn’t. What Google did, compared to other search companies, was that they built a whole business around being good at Search, and for the first several years they didn’t get distracted. All the other early search companies, such as Excite, Lycos, Snap, LookSmart, Hotbot, Go, Infoseek, AltaVista, Inktomi, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, MSN, etc., lived a dual life. They said they were search companies, but in reality most of these companies were ruled by business development and marketing. They were non-search search companies.
At each of those companies there were hidden people – engineers, product managers, and editors – who were trying to build relevant search. But the business side of these companies had the ears of the executives, and they were whispering that the product only needed to be decent to bring users. After all, in the mid and late 90s users were happy enough just to know one place to go when they got online, and if they knew how to type in *insert company name from above*.com that was fine for the business arms.
Some of the big players, like Yahoo and MSN, who did believe in providing a good user experience, outsourced much of their search technology. And the good engines, AV and Inktomi, didn’t know what to do with a good thing. Had they focused on public-facing algorithmic search, instead of portalization and enterprise search without a consumer facing interface, either of them could be king.
Google came along and said look, all you guys are doing all these other things, but we’re going to do Search. In the beginning they didn’t know how to make money out of it, so they outsourced it. They also had google.com, so while their competitors distributed their search, users realized they could go right to the source. In those early days was Google more relevant than AV, Inktomi, and IBM’s Clever? There’s no reason any of those other products couldn’t have kept up in the race if they’d had the same business-side support from their companies.
Those of us who were the hidden people in non-search search companies, we talked about how search was neglected. But for the execs, search was not something to make money off of (in business speak: monetization), search was something you had to have or else people wouldn’t come to your portal and look at your banner ads (business speak: impressions) or read your articles (business speak: content). And so while all the non-search search companies slept, Google built Search.
What’s the point of all this? The point is that the people who advocated for search and relevancy existed in the companies mentioned above, but they were under-nourished in their corporate diaspora. Now search makes busines sense, and the non-search search companies (those still in business along with a host of new ones), are all working on Search. Here at Yahoo, many of the hidden people have gathered from their respective non-search search companies and the result is a group whose sole and only mission is improving Search.